How to start out at sessions

How to start out at sessions

I am new to the scene (at 62) inspired to play Irish folk trad music after an extended trip around Ireland in a motorhome. I am learning the melodium but can already play the whistles at an average level I’d say. I also have a good ear and can pick up quickly and improvise.
Maybe my question is more along the lines of understanding the unwritten rules of sessions.
I had understood them generally to be open as in - anyone can join in. Having read some of the threads on here I can appreciate how frustrating it can be if it is interruptive to the flow of the regulars and when you have a new comer you don’t know how that’ll be.
What happened to me was - I was in a pub with a C whistle I’d just bought in my bag when a session started. I told one person of the gathering group that I was a whistler with a C whistle on me. He didn’t tell the rest of the group and I wasn’t welcomed. They churned out a preset repertoire. They had no wind players. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t given a chance. Should I have been more pushy?
How do new comers join in? Do we have to call up people first and practise privately with them? I was on holiday there.
Aren’t they interested in casual passing players? I would have thought giving me a chance for one number in the key of C would have been friendly. What do you think?
What is the protocol please and how did you get started? I would like to join a regular session on my return to my UK home city and I want to get it right.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Hi Jac,

First off, welcome to the world of Irish Trad. Just like any sub culture there are rules that apply to being part of a greater whole.

First off, for most Irish sessions, a D whistle is what you will need. Playing in C, unless you are at a C or cross bowing session, will exclude you from most of the repertoire as the keys played are in D, G, E minor, A, etc.

Also, understand not all sessions are an open invitation to play unless advertised as such. Some "sessions" are actually gigs in which the musicians are being paid to play, and they have set repertoire, sets they play. Others are closed sessions in which an invite list of friends have already been determined. There are no real set rules, but to prevent any conflict the best is to approach the group and ask if it is an open session and if you can join. If you are told no, don’t take it as an insult, but ask if you can sit in and listen. The way I like to think about sessions is like a dinner party. Would you sit down at a stranger’s table just because you like eating the same food?

Also, with most sessions, improvisation is frowned upon greatly. This isn’t jazz. We play the melody as a group and only play on tunes we know (unless you are an accompanying instrument like a guitar, bouzouki, bodhrans, which you should be expected to know the roles that those instrument) and sit out and listen to those we do not know. If you want to play those unknown tunes later, ask the names, learn them at home so you can play it next time. Otherwise, you are just noodling and disturbing the group dynamic.

The best way to find out whether you are the best fit for a session is to seek out open sessions, ask if you can join, and if accepted sit and listen first. Use this site as a resource to find sessions that are local to your area. Be aware of the skill level of the musicians and of your own ability. At an open session the host or group would usually invite you to start a set of tunes, but every session is different.

All the best,


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Re: How to start out at sessions

Sessions vary so you have to see what happens. We were in Dingle during the festival last year and they were advertising a session trail at local pubs with local musicians leading them but they actually turned out to be more like concerts and we weren’t made to feel welcome to join in despite having instruments with us. In the end we found a quiet pub off the trail where the landlord was happy to let us play and joined in on his banjo.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Thanks. There was a session early on and a band later.
I had asked the bar staff what the difference was and he said a session is for other people to join in. It wasn’t billed as an open session so that was the difference maybe.

Re: How to start out at sessions

It’s hard. I got ‘in’ at the two sessions I go to only because I got to know the two session leaders - one is my teacher. That’s easier for me because he tries to include everyone in the circle.

With the other session, I couldn’t join in much at all at first, and practised their repertoire at home as much as I could. I dropped out for a few months, disheartened, but then started going again and now can join in quite well.

I would suggest finding a session that plays near you, going to listen to it - no thoughts of playing - and introduce yourself to the leader. Note down the tunes that they play, and if possible, in what key.

Then keep going to the session, indicating in chat that you’re interested in playing, and what you can play. After a few attendances, bring your instruments, and start joining in where you can. Later, ask the session leader if you can start a tune.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Start by buying yourself a whistle in the key of "D", learn the tunes, then go to join in on a session. In that order.

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Re: How to start out at sessions

Yes - playing a C whistle would be considered an anti social key.

Sessions mainly exist so that people can join socially and play tunes they have collectively learned. These are in usual keys as said above.

People can join in with this - but it’s not the considered good manners to ask all players to make a change to accommodate you.

Making music in a fun and easy way - using a shared repertoire - is what really all session players generally accept as the norm.

Get a D whistle asap.

Also - tunes are played in sets of 2,3 or more tunes - stopping to accommodate a learner play a tune is something you’ll find in many sessions - but not all.

This may be the monthly opportunity to come together and play with good friends - or it may be that the bar expects a consistent quality from the session.

Ask anyone who seems like a leader or who is often there if it’s suitable to join. Playing a set of enjoyable tunes in common session keys (all available on the ubiquitous D whistle) is the way to ideally join a session.

Something to realise is that you migh not be of a competent enough standard yet for that session. Try to be aware - and don’t be scared to ask someone who looks competent enough - "was that ok? Was it in tune and in in time enough?"
These questions will get sensitive answers - especially if you want to know exactly what to work on with your playing.

The worst character at a sesh is not a poor player - that’s normal - the worst character is one who plays badly in a way that changes the session for the worse, but does not want to hear any feedback on how to improve.

Just open up honest lines of communication- but hopefully that helps explain general expectations at sessions.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Speaking only from my own experience, sessions are rarely "open" in the truest sense of the word. They’re just like every other regular or semi-regular gathering of friends. How would you join any group of people you don’t know? Sit back and watch first, then watch some more. If it seems welcoming a simple, polite, " lovely tunes, may I join you" often works well. If you get a "yes", sit down and watch some more. Maybe they meant it and maybe they didn’t, it’s their choice, they don’t owe you anything. Not having a common instrument ( a D whistle) kind of pushed you further out. To your credit, you did mention your instrument first. It would have been good for the person you spoke with to address that up front but not really required. Also, it might help to go to some larger festival sessions to get your feet wet. The anonymous nature at these may help you get the feel for what to do.

When you make an effort to join a regular session on your home turf, take a bit longer and, one, find a session that seems welcoming and, two, get to know them first. Keep in mind that it’s your job to fit in. Avoid being presumptuous enough to think they somehow owe you a spot, just because you can play your instrument. There’s more to the group dynamic than that. It took me weeks to be accepted locally and a couple of years to be able to play well enough to fit in. I did quickly learn that all the skills I had at improvisation, with a deep background in other styles and as a bassist, weren’t going to get my anything but ticket out. ( I was your age, by the way). Go slow, be patient. I assume, have no reason to doubt, that your skills are up to par.

Jac, I don’t say this to be in any way critical. I hope that in the end you have the patience to find a session "home". It’s worth the effort and the time.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Thanks everyone.
How do I find out what the tunes are called?

Re: How to start out at sessions

As people have mentioned, there are different kinds of sessions. Especially in Ireland, where having a session is pretty good for the tourist business of a pub. In that case, they often have at least some paid session "anchors", who are experienced players and are there to ensure a particular quality of music.

But you need to remember that a sessions are generally not "open to anyone", even if it’s an open session. It would be more accurate to say that they are "open to anyone who knows the music and can play at that level". Otherwise, you end up with the tourists who just bought a Guinness-branded bodhran at a souvenir shop, and the yutz who wants to borrow your guitar and sing the entire John Denver repertoire.

Remember that a session is also a social gathering among friends. You shouldn’t think that the players are there for your enjoyment, they are there to have some tunes and craic with their friends. So just like going to any other social situation, you shouldn’t assume that you can just jump into the middle of someone else’s conversation. Introduce yourself. Tell them that you’re really interested in the music and that you’re just learning. More often than not, they will ask you to join and encourage you. But if you just jump in the middle with a C whistle, they’re going to feel like it’s an assault on their fun, and often won’t pay you much mind.

And a higher level session may be encouraging of newcomers and beginners, but that doesn’t say that they want to play at a beginner’s level all night. Think of it like a cocktail party where someone brings their toddler. People will be encouraging of the child, and have a conversation with them, like "so, how old are you?", or "what grade are you in?". But eventually, they want to get back to the conversation with their peers about politics or science, or whatever.

The main thing is to have some social grace. If you’re a pleasant person, who is fun to hang out with, then they will generally welcome you in, instead of shunning you.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Yeah, just so it’s clear — if you show up at a normal Irish tunes session with a just a C whistle, I would expect most sessions not to invite you to play. Showing up without a D whistle is a sign you haven’t done ANYTHING to learn the basics of the genre. And frankly, a clueless newcomer improvising along on a whistle in the wrong key is going to disrupt the music.

That said, the guy from the session should have explained all that to you and pointed you in the right direction. It was very rude just to ignore you. (Lots of good advice already in this thread.)

Re: How to start out at sessions

To find out what the tunes are called, you can always ask. (Just be aware that if you ask what every tune of every set is, it can become tedious.) But you don’t need to know what every tune is. Start with maybe 5 tunes in a session that really grab your ear and ask what they are. Then take the time and learn those 5 tunes. And then find 5 more that catch your ear…

There are also other means, like TunePal on a phone or tablet, which can do a fairly reasonable job of telling you what tune is being played when you let it listen. But it’s somewhat unreliable because there are too many variables. So you can use it, but don’t assume that it’s always correct.

It’s always a good idea to have a recording device with you when you go to a session. (You should always ask if it’s OK before recording, of course)

Re: How to start out at sessions

Just ask the name of the tunes ;)

But not too often - would be annoying as there are lots.

Learn the most popular tunes on this website.

Re: How to start out at sessions

(To learn tune names) Tune Pal helps, asking is ok if not overdone. Often even great players just don’t know all the tune names. Some nights the most common tune was called "the one that goes like this" and "the one we play after the other one". Drives ya nuts, but in kind of a good way!

Re: How to start out at sessions

Tijn, just had a look at part I, and that might be the best "these are pretty decent common tunes for beginners" set I’ve ever seen put together. Still has a couple I’ve never heard of in there, but in general seems like a very solid beginner’s list.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Fab resource, Tijn Berends - thanks for posting! :)

Re: How to start out at sessions

Picking up a couple of things in the OP: « They churned out a preset repertoire. » Jac, how do you know that? Were they working from some kind of list? If not, then I would say it is more likely that they all knew each other’s tunes, and what your statement really means is that you just didn’t know any of the tunes they played. Am I right?

If so, you will find out, if you continue on the path of Irish music, that you can have a repertoire of dozens or hundreds of tunes and very easily happen upon a session where not one of them is played in an entire night’s music.

« They had no wind players. » I put it to you that very few players in high-level sessions (assuming this was one) would think that what they need to make things sound better is a whistle player. Please note, I say this as a whistle player myself.

« I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t given a chance. Should I have been more pushy? » No, you were absolutely right not to insist.

It’s easy for a beginner not to perceive the gap between the level he or she is at and the level that good players are at, let alone very good players. I say this from experience of teaching. One of my fiddle students years ago was convinced that there was little difference between my level and that of a certain famous player he admired. He saw it as a matter of inches, perhaps, but I knew it was a matter of miles.

Find a session where you will be welcome and where you can learn at your own pace. You’ll have a lot more fun that way than trying to make yourself accepted in a session where the odds are against you, and where you risk having hurt feelings.

Re: How to start out at sessions

If you can find a slow session all the better.


Re: How to start out at sessions

Hello, There is a book you can get from amazon titled The Field Guide To The Irish Music Session, try reading that. I think it’s around 10 dollars. I can’t understand how people can be sometimes,I think an explanation would of been fine but to ignore you,come on it’s music fun times.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Jac, You used the word ‘improvise’ in your original post. If you mean picking up the tune on the fly, then that is fine. But if you mean playing something that seems to fit, but is not the same melody everyone else is playing, your efforts will not be well received. I would suggest searching this site for "Dow’s List," a list of 50 or so tunes that everyone knows, and focus on learning them. And like lots of folks have said above, buy a D whistle, you won’t get far with a C.

Re: How to start out at sessions

AlBrown- Great to have that list, as I’m hoping to start sessioning soon (at a slow session) I’m secretly hoping I know some already.. better check!

Re: How to start out at sessions

Sessions are social and musical, so the qualities needed to fit in basically amount to being the kind of person people want to spend time with and being the kind of musician people want to play with. Ideally friendly, polite, technically competent and sensitive to the way other people are playing. Often just one or two of these qualities are enough. People will potentially tolerate a rude arrogant musician who plays stunning music or play basic, wobbly tunes with someone who’s good fun or just really sound.
Ultimately there are sessions out there where strangers aren’t all that welcome. Maybe the musicians are very cliquey, or it’s really a band who play their gig set list in a session environment. Maybe they’re old friends and this is the only chance they get to socialise etc… this rarely goes to the extent of telling people to leave or anything like that, but sometimes things might seem awkward or you might get the cold shoulder. Often if you keep coming and playing nice tunes and chatting away, the regulars will thaw and you’ll move solidly into that social circle, just like with any other social group.
As someone who seems to be relatively new to the music I’d say your best bet is to learn some common tunes. If you’re following a whistle tutor book or getting lessons you’re probably already dong that. If not there are lists online and books with titles like a hundred session tunes for beginners or what have you.
Then you go to a local session you like. Maybe you go a couple of times just to have a listen first or maybe you go straight in and introduce yourself. Say something like "I play a bit of whistle, do you mind if I sit in for a few tunes".
Now you’re in. Unless you’re an all Ireland champion or something this isn’t the opportunity to launch into loads of tunes and blow everyone away. (To be honest even if you were it’d come off as arrogant.) This is an opportunity to listen to the music and join in occasionally if you know a tune. Ideally you would either record some of the tunes or get their names to look up later. Also chat to the people next to you, introduce yourself etc…
It can feel quite awkward to just sit there and not play while everyone else is flying through sets of tunes, but it’s what most of us did at some point. (And often still do if we end up at a different session.) There’s no easy way around it. You sit and do a whole lot of listening and not much playing, and you learn the tunes being played, and gradually as the weeks or even months go by you pick up the local repertoire and play more.
Most sessions are friendly and people will ask for you to play a set of jigs or something and they’ll play along with you. If you’re starting out and they’ve been playing a long time they’re almost guaranteed to know any tune you do. If it’s not happening, you can potentially nudge it along by offering to play a set, but it’s rarely a good idea to do lots of this over the course of an evening.
If you’re travelling around, it’s a similar process but it all has to happen in one evening, so it’s a lot easier if you have lots of groundwork already done.
You go to the pub and get into the session. Maybe you demonstrate some knowledge of the music, "was that the whatsits of ballywhatsit? I love that tune! I heard soandso macsoandso play it in feakle a couple of years ago. Pure magic." They invite you to join them. Or you do as above "do you mind if I join in?"
Then you play along with them, the groundwork of knowing lots of tunes comes in handy here, also a certain amount of flexibility and sensitivity as they probably have their own versions and style and so-on. Chat away, exchange anecdotes about other sessions you were in, talk about the weather, ask about local sights, lament the state of the economy, see if you can come up with mutual acquaintances. When they ask you to play a set, carefully select some tunes that you think they will know but not be bored with, where you can shine but without being too flashy. Enjoy the evening! (Or if you’re playing out of your league so to speak, you could sit and listen, maybe ask to play a set or sit in for a bit, and then get back out and listen again. People generally don’t mind including beginners, they just don’t enjoy it when they monopolise the session or get intrusive.)

Re: How to start out at sessions

I would never go into an unfamiliar session with a sense of entitlement. I merely ask “Is it ok if I sit in and play along on the tunes I know?”

I’ve always been welcomed, but sometimes they are playing at a level that’s beyond me. That’s cool, I’ll sit and enjoy. I’ve got the best seat in the house (but being mindful that I’m not taking up space if another regular shows up).

And if I ever hear “sorry, this isn’t really an open session” I’m ready to roll with that too. It’s their session, not mine.

Re: How to start out at sessions

Whereabouts are you based Jac?

Re: How to start out at sessions

"…was that the whatsits of ballywhatsit? I love that tune! I heard soandso macsoandso play it in feakle a couple of years ago. Pure magic."

Oh wow. You were there, too? It was true magic. I was transported. Are there dots?

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Re: How to start out at sessions

I think there are, it’s also known as gan ainm You can look it up on the database.

Re: How to start out at sessions

‘Ay, Rachael, lass, awlus a muddle. That’s where I stick. I come to the muddle many times and agen, and I never get beyond it.’
Yes, indeed, it’s Hard Times for wannabes. You did your best by way of introducing yourself,
and it’s a shame that you were shunned. Someone here said that they don’t owe you anything. Well, I believe that they do! How about courtesy and respect for starters, not to mention the famous Céad Míle Fáilte? And since they were playing in a pub, we can conclude that they don’t own the space - and neither do they own the music!
Do not be disheartened, however. 90% (at least) of sessioners are decent coves - you just happened on a rum lot, it appears.
Best of luck for the future - and don’t forget the D whistle advice!

Re: How to start out at sessions

Hi Jac,

Agree that there are different kinds of sessions, in the sense that some are genuinely very open and friendly, where some appear less so.

Here is my personal experience.

Note I don’t play just ITM, and certainly didn’t when I started out, because I was a bit scared of it.

Anyway that’s another story!

When I first started out I was playing the Piano Accordion

I learnt some tunes on my own and went to a great workshop that really got me wanting to play more.

I can’t remember if I took the accordion to any pub sessions, but quickly switched to the Melodion.

At that time I didn’t have any friends that I know were in to the same styles of music, or even any kind of folk stuff, so I asked on a forum if there were any sessions near me.

I was contacted by a member who lives in the same town as me. She told me about a session (sadly it doesn’t run any more) that she went to. She said it could seem a little intimidating, but to come along.

After a couple of false starts (went to the wrong place etc) I got there, only knowing 5 or 6 tunes.

I felt a bit strange and out side, but they did play the tunes I know and I think I even started one.

It was mostly english stuff, so it worked well on the box I had and they didn’t mind a bit of trying to pick the tune up, as long as it wasn’t really blaring over the rest of the players.

I asked for names of tunes I liked but did not know, and started looking them up and learning them at home.

When that session stopped I wanted something nearer me, that was good for people that don’t drive.

So I set up my own in Reading (I think it’s the second incarnation of the Allied Arms session).

At first a friend (who is also a box player and works in the same building as me) came to help keep things flowing, and gave me some tips about how to run things.

When he wasn’t able to attend I had to step up and start leading.

The pub is pretty small, so you can fit 14 people with instruments in the bar, but it’s a squease!

It’s not just ITM and it’s a mix of tunes and songs.

I like to keep things moving and flowing organically if possible, but depending on the group it may be a bit more like a sing/play around.

It really depends on the numbers and how it is going on the night.
I make it clear that everyone is welcome to join in.

I haven’t yet had any problems with people who come to play crapping really badly over anyone else’s tune yet!

And if now and then someone wants to play stuff the rest of us don’t know, that’s ok. If they are hogging the floor a bit I usually manage to steer it back to being more inclusive, but they still got a go.

Also people from the other bar come in to listen and sometimes they ask to join in.

I personally like tunes sessions a bit more than open mic type events, but I take what I can get.

When I play at things that are a bit more set up for one group/person at a time, I encourage people to join in.

It might not sound great, but hopefully it’s giving someone who is worried about joining in or new to the scene, a bit of a chance to doodle along quietly and get their confidence up.

I had one bad experience at an ITM session, where it was made pretty dam clear to me that that particular group don’t want anyone who isn’t Irish playing ITM.

As my only Irish connection that I know of is dating someone with Irish grandparents, I decided that rather than get in to a heated discussion about it, I would just give that one a mis!


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Re: How to start out at sessions

I used to go to sessions with a very quiet mandolin and pick along so quietly that no-one could hear me at all. Every so often someone would make a big deal about me being inaudible but I learnt a lot about dealing with difficult people at sessions and it has stood me in good stead in the world. "Smile and wave!", as they say on the canals.

Re: How to start out at sessions

I can’t believe no one has suggested lessons. Formal instruction can be a huge help to beginners, and can help you figure out whether you want to put the time into becoming a competent player.

Even on the whistle, becoming a competent player is a lot more work than it looks like. It’s easier than most instruments, true, but it still takes SOME work.

Comments about acquiring a D whistle are absolutely correct. Keep in mind that some sessions are more winds-friendly than others. The ones who aren’t will be dominated by fiddles, banjos, and accordions playing lots of tunes in A major, E major, C, F, E flat, etc just about any key except bog standard D, G, and related modes. It is still possible to play most of that kind of material on a D whistle, but it is harder and you may want to look for more winds-oriented sessions to help you get your feet under you (the presence of at least one very strong flute player or a piper is a tell, assuming they’re playing D instruments, of course).

Re: How to start out at sessions

Learn Julia Delaney on your C whistle. Then you can play that one. That’s the best tune of them all. It’s in D minor.

Re: How to start out at sessions

One thing I’d add to all the good advice above: I think it’s very important to listen to the music a LOT before trying to join in. There’s more to it than just the melody, and I think it takes much more than one visit to Ireland to get the feel of it in your bones. I’ve been in sessions where newbies came in playing more or less the right notes, but in a very inappropriate style - for example, very rigid and classical, or very Appalachian sounding, or even Calypso or like an "oompah" brass band.

I suppose there are those who can very quickly pick up an appropriate style as well as learn melodies. But I suspect they’re pretty rare. Listen, listen, listen all you can.

Re: How to start out at sessions

"Maybe my question is more along the lines of understanding the unwritten rules of sessions.
I had understood them generally to be open as in - anyone can join in. Having read some of the threads on here I can appreciate how frustrating it can be if it is interruptive to the flow of the regulars and when you have a new comer you don’t know how that’ll be."

Really? Seriously? From reading some of the threads here you can appreciate the flow as the regulars do? Even when you’ve come to one session? Before you have spent time listening to the regulars and gotten a feel for how they interact, which tunes the regulars play, their banter, how the regulars communicate…?

Did you ask anyone else in the session if it was okay to play a set of tunes appropriate for the C whistle you brought; not just the first person who apparently brushed you off? Jac, I don’t know how the session responded since I was not there. But joining a session you’ve come to for the first time is a process; it works both ways. Perhaps the session was not open for newcomers. Perhaps you did not know who to ask, fair enough. But it’s impossible for anyone on this site to know what one particular session expects of visitors. Believe it or not every session is distinct. This board can only give you general guidelines about joining in at a new session. The rest is up to you and the members of the particular session you choose to share tunes with.

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Re: How to start out at sessions

I thought B was the anti-social key. Oh well.

I only saw it mentioned once, but instead being frustrated, start your own session. Pick a place to meet and put up a notice and if 3 people show up it should be a success. Ok, maybe 2.

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